Spiritual Fragment — Some Thoughts on Civility

I’ve been trying to find a value bigger than our poisonous political situation to use for measuring my day.  It’s hard, because we are all so angry from our particular sides of the political divide.  We can argue about why that is; we can point fingers and, as the Nez Perce used to say,” put our nerves between our teeth” as we watch the infuriating political wranglings going on in our states and in our nation’s capital while this unseen death moves like a dark river across our country.

The bridge that I see is civility.  I came at this from the down side:  lack of civility is owned by neither end of the political spectrum.  I see people filling the entire bed of a pick-up with boxes of toilet paper and, when confronted, yelling, “Make America Great Again!”  And I see wealthy young women in our liberal stronghold here in Oregon wantonly parking their $80,000 SUVs in handicap spaces so they can push ahead of others into local toney, high end supermarkets. Like the virus itself, selfishness recognizes no boundaries.

Yes, we see moments of kindness all around us, and these are worth celebrating.  But the opportunity for kindness is not always there.  The opportunity for civility is.  Civility is about respect for the “other.”  It is about making them as important in our thinking as we make ourselves.

Whereas kindness requires a certain dynamic of movement — “I see something I can do that will make life better for another” — civility can be static and have no need for active issuance.  It can be nothing more than quiet deference to the rights of another.

There are cultures where this is built into the psychology and social fabric.  Sadly, it is not part of our American “rights of the individual” and “individual freedoms” mindset.  But it is easily put into practice in our daily lives.  It requires only thinking about the “other” before thinking about the “self.”

Years ago, in my literary firstborn, Letters to My Son, I wrote a chapter called, “Rainaldi’s Lesson.”  It was based on a comment made by a junior high teacher of mine, Franklin Rainaldi – bless his soul wherever it may be – who pulled me aside one day and said, “You know, Nerburn,  every sentence you say starts with the word ‘I’.”

It was a lightning bolt, a rapier strike, a koan.  And it changed my life – if not in practice, at least in awareness.  At its highest, it was a lesson in compassion and empathy.  At its most ordinary, it was a lesson in civility because it took the “self” out of the center of my awareness and caused me to think about encounters from the point of view of the “other.”

In times of stress, where thoughts of self-survival are rumbling below the surface in all of us, where big thoughts lead us nowhere or to places where we don’t want to go, simple civility is a practice worth cultivating.

I can’t tell you how to practice civility.  That’s its beauty – it is uniquely personal in both its understanding and its application.  But if it has no simple definition, it does have an aura.  As Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart once said about pornography, he did not know exactly how to define it, but he knew it when he saw it.

We know civility when we see it.  It is a moral posture, a personal carriage, a self-containment animated by respect for the sanctity of the encounter.

If I would offer you a thought for the day, it is this:  Always look for opportunities to practice kindness, but be satisfied to move through the events of an ordinary day with civility.  In your awareness, if not in your actions, put the “other” before the “self.”

These are times when close examination of our own behaviors can yield great awareness and spiritual dividends.  We should take this opportunity to seek these out.

We need to make these days a time of growth.  When this is over, we want to be better, not just relieved.

31 thoughts on “Spiritual Fragment — Some Thoughts on Civility”

  1. People are frustrated in general. Thats what i am told. I am 64 yrs old. and do not think young people have respect for life.
    I am a Alabamian , and once as a teen met Russell means at a pow wow. in Muscle Shoals , Al. what a treat that was . He was So kind and generous with his time. not Indian I just admire their culture and purity. and told him so.
    learned to understand them more through” Neither wolf nor dog”. and ” The wolf at twilight” . which i finished last night.
    My interest in Sociology , Psychology and Anthropolgy is natural. I appreciate your books and I believe your teachings from ancient
    philosophy will benefit many generations seeking out the knowledge and wisdom that enhance human kinds existance to have peace and cooperation.
    Such gifts of many thousands of years of trial and error. That We have lost or cast away as irrelavent i don’t spell as good as I used to.
    Keep up your good works ! They matter a lot .

  2. Hi Kent:
    Thank you for your reminders in kindness, empathy, caring & sharing.
    I’m in a Shambala Meditation group and we read, discuss, contemplate and practice all that you put in your column.
    I -we-appreciate the reminders, as needed during turmulous times. I read your emails and am very interested in what you write.

    Your books have always meant alot. Thank you. Grateful.

  3. Thank you Kent~ I am at a loss for words right now
    I am feeling overwhelmed these days as my daughter
    who is a respiratory therapist also has asthma
    and my son in law an ER nurse have been in this since
    it began.. I love your writings and thanks for writing this
    timely piece…. Sincerely, Linda

  4. Earnest Williams

    Mr. Nerburn, I have read and thoroughly enjoyed most all of your books. Your reflections always cause me to to engage in self examination and at times motivate me to walk a better path.
    I hope you will continue to write books and essays. I’m sure those folks who read and follow you are as much impacted as I am.
    Peace and blessings to you.

  5. Once again, you have struck the steel fastener squarely on its flat end. Yes, we must come out of this better than before. Opportunity is at the door, here in Gearhart, too.

    Be well; be safe; be civil; be kind.

  6. Thank you for continuing your writings. I enjoy them. I’ve always been an optimist and with all the negativity being thrown at all of us during this time.. I’ve personally experienced more good than bad during this crazy time.

  7. Thank you; my adult sons were brought up without a father and they can learn from you if they will open their minds & hearts. There is always hope along with kindness.

  8. Thank you for these words about kindness and for your beautiful method of expression. This is a wonderful reminder during this time when most of us are on edge a bit and quick to judge. Bless you.

  9. .I’m an old man who is dismayed by politicians of both parties. We are going down a dark road. Our loved ones will pay a heavy price.National politics, as currently practiced, is ugly and nasty

    I admire people who have the qualities of decency, honesty, intelligence and character. I search for politicians of both parties who have these qualities. Sadly, they seem to be very rare birds.

    Kent, your thoughts and your words are eloquent. They prove that you have character. I wish I could vote for you.

  10. Kent, it says a lot about you that you took Mr. Rainaldi’s comments to heart, instead of dismissing his words. Besides devotion to craft, two qualities that make you the writer you are showed up then: more than civility. Compassion and self-awareness. My thanks.

  11. When there is no thought of “I”, “me”, or “mine”, you don’t have to look for opportunities to be civil or kind; the heart sees they’re everywhere.

    Thanks for this, Kent.

  12. As a long time Unitarian Universalist I believe in the inherent worth and dignity of all beings and the interconnected web of existence. Your writing always affirms these beliefs. I thank you.

  13. There is a lot in these thoughts. What I read here is a struggle to understand and put to words these extremely devisive times and the events to follow, some of which have been horrific. Civility seems a bedrock of the way out. But, of course, we have so much further to go to heal as a society & culture. I often think of king Theoden in The Two Towers, when he says, “The days have gone down in the West behind the hills into shadow. How did it come to this?”. Indeed, how did it come to this? Probably, the answer is too complex to ever know with certainty. But, surely, who we choose to be in the future means everything. Let us hope that the tragic loss of life from covid 19 will compell us to indeed be better.

  14. Himanshu Tiwari

    Dear Kent,

    Indeed civility is important in these times. As you know Sanders has dropped out. Did Jefferson ever imagine that the electorate would have to choose between an infantile despot and a senile buffoon?

    Thank you for your continued inspirational blog posts.

  15. Himanshu Tiwari

    Hello Kent,

    The question :”how did it come to this?” in the comment by Bob is an important one of course and it turns out that some American writers, historians, and critiques have tried to understand the root cause. Dr. Morris Berman (contemporary) is one of them ( C. Vaan Woodward (1953) and Andrew Hacker (1970), and Walt Whitman among others). Dr. Berman posted an article titled “Its All Over but the Shouting” (written by David Masciotra, an independent freelance writer) on his blog today (talk about coincidence!). The article is a review of Berman’s American Empire trilogy. Below is the link and some excerpts(with an intro by Berman ):

    “A few months ago, David Masciotra, a free-lance writer and author of Against Traffic, among other works, approached The American Conservative with a proposal for an article, which would be a review of my American Empire trilogy. He subsequently submitted the article, and never heard back. Since I’m neither a conservative nor a progressive, but only a writer interested in Reality, it’s possible that TAC got spooked by David’s essay. (To paraphrase T.S. Eliot, “Americans can’t bear too much reality.”) However, it’s also possible that by that time the coronavirus was starting to make itself visible, and that TAC was thrown by that rather than anything ideological. I guess we can give them the benefit of the doubt. In any case, David and I agreed that I should just post his essay on my blog, and accept the fact that no American publication was likely to run it (for whatever reason). Hence, here it is:”


    “The left and right argue about nearly everything, making extreme accusations about each other. Maybe one camp is right on other issues, and the other is correct on some, but the larger possibility to consider is, what if they are all wrong on the main issue?

    As Berman put it during a recent email exchange that I had with him:

    Conservatives and progressives alike are patriots; like Trump, they seek to save America, or make it great again. What they are ignoring is the rhythm and record of history. All civilizations rise and fall; there are no exceptions to this rule, and America is not going to escape its fate. The great Southern historian, C. Vann Woodward, first suggested the inevitable decline of the nation in 1953. Andrew Hacker stated it clearly in The End of the American Era, 1970. Between that year and today, there have been a host of books—my trilogy on the American empire included—that have pointed out that civilizations come and go, and that now is our time. Yet on both the right and left, there is no recognition of this bedrock reality. If you do recognize the larger picture, you can’t possibly care about impeachment, for example, or who wins these silly Democratic debates. All of that is theater, not reality.”
    “…America, from its inception, was dedicated to commercial conquest, and equated “the pursuit of happiness” with the acquisition of wealth and property. The third book in Berman’s trilogy, Why America Failed, relies on assiduous research and sharp analysis to prove the case over its 400 pages. Meanwhile, the consistent papering over the more accurate story he tells, with red, white and blue advertisements, robs even many of the country’s leading dissidents of a holistic perspective. In his deployment of cultural criticism, Berman shows how, although his politics tend slightly toward the left, he is most in mourning over America’s destruction of tradition and refusal to balance its desires for commercial dominance with small scale, communal concerns:

    Dating back 400 years—the continent was filled with individuals whose idea of the good life was goods, i.e. money and property. There were dissenting voices, such as Capt. John Smith and the Puritan divines, but these were increasingly pushed aside. The title of Richard Bushman’s book, and the book itself, are good summaries of the process: From Puritan to Yankee. America was effectively born bourgeois; it had no feudal period. And while feudalism had its obvious drawbacks, it also had some serious advantages: community, craftsmanship, ties of friendship, meaningful work, noblesse oblige, and spiritual purpose, among other things. The American experiment was based, from the first, on hustling, opportunism; this is what the “pursuit of happiness” really meant in the eighteenth century—go out and get yours (which the Founding Fathers certainly did). “Virtue” originally meant putting the needs of society above one’s own personal interests. By the late seventeenth century, the meaning had been inverted: it now meant personal success in an opportunistic environment. Blaming the corporate elite has its limits, because what virtually all Americans want is to join the upper 1 percent. Thus American spirituality, such as it is, can be summarized in a single word: More. More, more, I want more. Our leaders reflect our values, which is how America’s consummate hustler, Donald Trump, wound up in the White House. In that sense, we have a genuine democracy.”

    I encourage your readership to read this article.

    Thank you,

  16. Himanshu Tiwari

    Hello Kent,

    Per your suggestion I am posting this comment here:
    I failed to mention that Berman’s exploration and understanding of American cultural history as briefly depicted in the essay (posted earlier) begins to find links with your works in the following paragraphs:

    “The improvements of American life for blacks, women, gays, and workers were possible through the courageous social movements of the 20th century, and these are improvements that Berman admires. He cautions, however, that none of them address the central problem of American culture:

    Those were certainly great successes, and they made a great difference for the people involved in those movements. Personally, I applaud them. The problem, however, is that all of them were bids to have a greater share in the American pie—bids to enter the dominant culture. None of them envisioned, a la Lewis Mumford, Henry David Thoreau, or Ernest Callenbach, a different type of society. They merely wanted a greater role in the society as is. The only group that stood for a completely different way of life was the Native Americans, and look what we did to them. The savagery of that genocide, of a people who dared to disagree with the American definition of “progress,” is unbelievable.

    When Martin Luther King turned more radical, expressing opposition to the “spiritual sickness” of America, rather than only its racist laws, the country turned on him. Similarly, Berman describes in his trilogy how most of the public mocked and ridiculed President Jimmy Carter for his televised “Spiritual Malaise” address, given in Annapolis in 1979—a speech that now appears prescient in its condemnation of uncontrolled consumerism, unabashed selfishness, and the stunning inability of the nation to observe its own behavior.”



  17. Himanshu’s recent comments take a broader view of our current situation. Referencing better minds than all of ours, he points to the very real possibility that we are simply at the end of the American cycle. Even if this is true, we need to act with awareness as we play our part in history. I encourage you to read his past few comments and to give them some serious reflection.

  18. Honest, well meaning comments on our writing can be so powerful can’t they! I had a teacher in college point out that I did not explain who/what my pronouns were about. I really respected this teacher (Perin) and so I let the comment teach/reach me. To this day when I use a pronoun I hear Perin, and I step up to the civility plate and elaborate for my dear listener/reader. Life is soooo much richer by the simple act of respect for other. All others.

  19. There’s a great civility in seeing both the mess and the beauty and knowing that both will always be with us , personally and collectively ,echoing through our known ,and unknown histories ,casting its self and us towards the next moment .When my dad was given a rifle in 1939 he had no idea of the next day , when he clung to the underneath of a railway carriage for two days journeying to France and then Scotland he had no idea of the next day . When he kept his stories loss and pain in silence he sought to protect my next day from his yesterdays .
    Perhaps the harvest of civility is in everyday and will like poetry never be written large across the sky.
    Lockdown England

  20. thank you for the distinction between kindness and civility. I have great hopes for major spiritual and societal shifts as people and businesses see the difference between before and during the shut down.

    George Washington said (from a celestial tea box) – on civility – “Every action in company ought to be with some sign of respect to those present. …Think before you speak….Be not angry at table, whatever happens; and if you have reason to be so, show it not…”

    i would like to encourage people to start saying physical distancing and social nurturing. More accurate.

    I recommend Book of Elders by Sandy Johnson – 30 interviews in the 90s. Amazing.

    With gratitude, Christina Chambreau, holistic veterinarian practicing civility.

  21. Kent,
    Just read your piece “Spiritual Fragment – Some Thoughts on Civility”
    So appropriately meaningful for us all particularly in the current set of circumstances and behaviors.
    Your writings always carry a powerful message and this one is a great example. Stay safe. Keep healthy. Continue messaging.

    There have been so many “Nerburn’s Lessons” in your writings
    Though it’s been 60 years ago that you were a14yr old at Hopkins North Junior High, I clearly remember you:- an impressive teen with ability to have a positive effect in many people’s lives. You certainly have accomplished that and more.
    You are in Oregon now? I’ve retired to Arizona.
    Franklin Rainaldi

  22. Ah, how wonderful this is — hearing from a man who in one sentence changed my life. I hope you have read “Rainaldi’s Lesson” in Letters to my Son. I often think, as do so many of us, that we wish we had taken the time to reach out and thank those teachers who gave so much of themselves and helped shaped our lives. You were one of those for me. So, thank you for who you were and are, and what you did. I hope Arizona is treating you well. My wife and I are missing the seasons and talk about moving back to the Midwest. We spent twenty five years in northern Minnesota before moving out here. It has been good, but it’s time to go home. If you don’t have a copy of “Rainaldi’s Lesson,” I’ll send you a PDF. You can show it to those other sun dwellers and tell them that you left some good footprints. I’m so thrilled that you’ve reached out.

  23. Franklin Rainaldi

    I was given a copy of “Letters to my Son” about 20 years ago, and it remains with my own son’s bedside favorites. Finding your recent post was rewarding, of course, but more so thought-provoking. Students shaped my life as well … and I, like you, wish I would have told them: their thoughts and actions were “as important” as mine. I am sure that I think of those former students who I know changed my thinking as often as I remember my own junior high teachers who helped shape my life. And then there are those unknown “influencers” who have changed our lives without our even being aware … and that brings me full circle to your post on civility. Yes, let us extend kindness and civility to all.

    As I mentioned in the earlier post, I remember you these sixty years later and I thank you for sharing your lessons on life. How timely it was to discover your April post about civility in this week before the election. I, of course, think of myself as kind and civil … but I will be on my best behavior. Thank you for the reminder.

    Finally, given my son has “Rainaldi’s Lesson” back in St. Louis Park, I would appreciate the PDF. Stay safe.

  24. Hi Kent, have been thinking about you recently when I saw a post of Steven’s about the film. Given the historic nature of this week I just wanted to check and see what you’ve been sharing recently and this post stood out to me. I’m glad to see you connected with Rainaldi. I wrote recently about what a decent human being my father was when confronted with a post thread that basically said people are only out for themselves. Hope you are well

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